UW Graduate School

What influences your mentoring needs

The Graduate School believes that a diverse graduate student population enriches the University, and we are committed to enhancing the mentoring of students from underrepresented populations. These improvements will make the University a richer and more democratic community and benefit the entire graduate student body.

No two students experience advanced study in the same way. Students with similar backgrounds and characteristics can experience different challenges. Some graduate students of different backgrounds share similar concerns, such as presenting or publishing papers and job searching. Your gender, gender identification, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, disabilities, age, prior work experience, career aspirations, family responsibilities and socioeconomic background influence the mentoring you need.

Assertiveness

The unspoken code in graduate education is that, aside from being intelligent, students who are assertive in classroom discussions or conference presentations attain success. However, students from marginalized groups often demonstrate a different approach to academic interactions. Many women, minorities and international students express concern about difficulties they experience making their contributions heard. For example, in classroom discussions, some women have noted that to contribute an idea, often they have to interrupt another student. They tend to see interjecting themselves in this manner as rude and disrespectful; yet they fear that professors and peers will wrongly attribute their lack of participation to having no ideas at all. Many women report that when they assert their ideas strongly, they feel subjected to criticism in a way that their male counterparts are not — even though the assertive behavior is the same.

Competitiveness

Research has shown that an overly competitive and critical atmosphere in graduate programs can alienate minority and women students. Women have said that the system does not reward praising the contributions of other scholars. More opportunities for collaborative work would help balance the competitive culture of graduate school. 

Importance of positive feedback

Many students want frequent constructive feedback on their work, and the lack of constructive feedback can lead students to doubt their capabilities. Some women tend to attribute negative experiences they have in graduate school to personal deficiencies, while some men tend to attribute them to insufficient guidance or problems within the department. Many men are more content than women with mentors who offer solid instrumental — yet seemingly impersonal — advice. Women and members of other underrepresented groups may interpret a professor’s distance as an indication that he or she has a negative opinion of them.

Recommendations

  • Discuss with your mentor or professor what makes your participation in seminars or projects difficult. Suggest ways that he or she can help you participate more, such as by directing questions to you.
  • If a professor or peer interrupts you, point out that you would like to complete your thought or contribution.
  • Avoid addressing your peers or professors as spokespersons for their gender. Invite your peers to offer their perspectives and ask how gender may or may not influence them.
  • Try to influence the tenor of group discussions that become excessively critical by asking, “What contributions does this particular article/person/report make?”
  • Participate in discussions and projects through small group work, email discussions or discussion boards, journal comments, informal discussions and office hours.
  • Include all who want to participate in peer or discussion groups.
  • Ask your mentors and/or professors to provide clear feedback on your work.
  • Give your peers specific feedback on their projects.
  • Consult departmental resources and Graduate School representatives if you are being treated in ways that negatively impact your graduate work.

Resources

Sexual orientation and gender identity

Unlike other underrepresented students, many gay, bisexual, lesbian, transgender and queer (GBLTQ) students are “invisible” because sexual orientation and gender identity are not always determined through physical expression, or because some students choose not to be out. Some students talk about their sexual orientation or gender identity openly. Your mentors have the responsibility to maximize your learning. Whether you are a GBLTQ student or not, you can help your academic community eliminate, or be more aware, of the following:

Homophobia

Despite a fairly accepting climate such as ours, GBLTQ students can still encounter homophobia around campus. Behaviors can range from the blatantly offensive, such as verbal or physical threats or attacks, to the less obvious, such as the casual remark “that is so gay” in classroom or hallway conversations.

Heterosexism

Many graduate students and professors discuss topics with the unconscious assumption that everyone is heterosexual. Some straight faculty and students who have a heightened awareness of gender issues might still talk about the world from a heterosexual perspective. GBLTQ students experience such scholarly discussions as biased, and the absence of GBLTQ perspectives can make them feel isolated from intellectual engagement.

Genderism

Genderism is the assumption that male and female assignments of gender are fixed at birth. This is not the case for every person. Gender biases in classrooms and departments (e.g., saying “it” to refer to individuals of ambiguous gender; gendered bathrooms) are oppressive to individuals who feel the need to alter their gender identity.

Disclosing

Being out as a GBLTQ student is not a one-time event, but a decision he or she makes in each new situation. Each new interaction comes with the burden of having to assess the personal, social and political ramifications of disclosure. Heterosexual students do not bear this weight when interacting with peers and professors.

Recommendations

  • Assume that GBLTQ students or faculty are present in every classroom, lab, seminar or campus meeting and that they might not feel safe being out.
  • Assess your department’s environment and your level of comfort with being out if you are a GBLTQ student.
  • Ask peers and mentors whom you know are out to suggest how department members can create an environment that is conducive to everyone’s learning and professional needs.
  • Establish standards for inclusive language and communication collaboratively with your peers and professors.
  • Avoid homophobic, gendered, sexist or other discriminatory comments. For example, when talking about families, avoid talking as if every family were composed of a husband, wife and children. Use words like “spouse and partner” instead of just “spouse” or “husband” or “wife.” These terms go a long way in letting GBLTQ students and students who are single know they are represented in discussions.
  • Treat sexual orientation as a multidimensional phenomenon in your relationships with peers and mentors. Understand that homosexuality is only one of several expressions of sexual orientation and that gender identity may not be fixed for everyone.
  • Encourage your department to put GBLTQ concerns on the agenda for graduate student orientations and training programs for faculty and staff.

Resources

Race and ethnicity

Race and ethnicity shape your academic, social and professional experiences on campus. Although the racial and ethnic diversity of the UW graduate student population has been increasing over the last 20 years, the campus community as a whole remains relatively homogenous. One reason is that efforts to enhance the pipeline of students at primary and secondary levels preparing for higher education have been well-meaning, but sporadic and limited.

Another reason is that disciplinary programs are still learning how to expand their student recruitment and outreach efforts. As a result, ethnic minority graduate students at the UW can feel marginalized, not only in the student population but in how research problems and curricula reflect — or fail to reflect — their scholarly influence and experiences. We need more role models of faculty and students who engage in multicultural scholarship, research and teaching to strengthen diversity awareness and support structures in graduate training.

Role models

When students enter the complex structure of a research university, they can experience feelings of isolation or become overwhelmed. One of the first things students do is seek out people with whom they can identify in order to temper those feelings. This search can be challenging for students of color. The lack of minority faculty members makes it difficult for graduate students to find an adviser or mentor in their fields. Ethnic minorities often seek role models — regardless of race — who have “paved the way,” who work through the dissonances between their home communities and the academic community, and who can help students do the same. When one of the few faculty of color leaves the UW, minority students feel the impact.

Stereotyping

A stereotype that students of color worry about is whether other students and faculty will have low expectations of them. White faculty and peers may unwittingly avoid reaching out to, or worse, end up discouraging students of color in seminar or lab interactions. This stereotype can make minority students feel awkward when seeking advice and guidance. Another harmful stereotype is that “all ethnic minorities are alike” or have the same goals for graduate school and experience the same challenges. These assumptions compromise collegial interaction and undermine students’ individual needs and talents.

Lack of an explicit support system

At least two kinds of support are necessary for students, and in particular students of color, to succeed. The first is sufficient financial support and the second is environmental support, including mentoring and networking. Departments should not assume that students automatically “know” how to navigate the system or pursue support. Underrepresented students in higher education may have fewer direct channels to such sources of assistance. If workshops on these issues are not offered regularly in departments, or not publicized well, then opportunities remain hidden and students miss out.

Exclusion from support networks

Underrepresented students on fellowships may be inadvertently overlooked for teaching and research assistantships, and, as a result, experience fewer opportunities for collegial, career-building interactions with faculty and peers. They also miss out on how teaching and research assignments can enhance graduate training and strengthen their curriculum vitae.

Recommendations

  • Attend diversity forums on campus each year, and bring ideas for community building back to your department.
  • Understand that graduate students from different racial and ethnic groups confront different issues and challenges in their programs. At the same time, avoid assuming that all students from a given racial or ethnic group have the same perspectives or needs.
  • Recognize your peers’ unique strengths.
  • Learn about scholarly advances that have resulted from the inclusion of multicultural research, knowledge and perspectives in your discipline.
  • Reach out to students of color in seminars, discussions and group assignments. Collaborate on research or teaching projects, and look for opportunities to present these projects in departmental forums or disciplinary meetings.
  • Ask your department to offer workshops on financial support, mentoring, diversity, community-building and success strategies.
  • Consult the Graduate School’s website for academic, professional and community resources.
  • Talk with your mentors about ways they can help you achieve professional development experiences. If you are a student of color on a fellowship, tell faculty and peers that you are interested in guest lecturing or collaborating in lab groups. Ask to be considered for teaching or research assistantships as a substitute for a certain amount of fellowship time.
  • Join student policy, curricular or cultural groups. Shape the needs of your community by being a student representative at faculty meetings, joining the Graduate and Professional Student Senate or leading writing, study or teaching groups.
  • Become involved with national networks for underrepresented minorities and women students.

Resources

Disabilities

Students can have physical disabilities, learning disabilities (such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder or dyslexia), chronic disabilities (such as lupus or multiple sclerosis) and psychological disabilities (such as depression or bipolar disorder). Their needs may vary depending on whether they have had a disability since birth or if it developed — or was diagnosed — later in life.

Students should work collaboratively with their professors and with Disability Resources for Students (DRS) to ensure that their needs are met. The DRS office is charged with establishing eligibility for disability-related services such as academic adjustments and auxiliary aids for qualified students with disabilities, and can assist students and faculty in determining effective ways to meet disability-related needs in courses or programs. If you or any of your peers has a disability, be aware of the following factors that can influence mentoring needs.

Reluctance to ask for help

Some students with disabilities fear appearing or becoming too dependent if they ask for help. Those whose disabilities are a recent onset, as well as those with invisible disabilities, may be unaccustomed to asking for help. Students also fear being seen as less capable or less competent because of their disabilities or their needs for accommodations.

Efforts to keep up

For many students with disabilities, meeting basic course requirements demands more time and energy than it does for other students. A student with multiple sclerosis may have a certain number of hours each day for school and studying before fatigue, vision problems and cognitive deficits flare. A student who is hard of hearing and uses a real-time captioner (like a court stenographer) may have to review several pages of notes from the captioner in order to create study notes. Some students cannot participate in professional activities such as submitting papers for conferences because they need to devote time and energy to meet the demands of their programs.

Problems that arise from last-minute changes

Changes in reading assignments can be difficult for students who are blind or visually impaired. At the beginning of the quarter, these students may need readings to be converted into an alternate format, such as Braille, audiotape or electronic text. Conversion often involves a computer screen reader, or enlargement, with specialized software. Readings added later in the quarter require students to have them converted in a short period of time, and they may not be able to meet reading deadlines. Room relocations may also cause hardships for visually impaired students and students with mobility limitations.

Recommendations

  • If you are a student with a disability, inform your professors and contact DRS as soon as possible to determine how your needs can be accommodated to ensure equal access.
  • Request a syllabus in advance from your professors. Ask them to prioritize readings or assignments if you anticipate difficulties completing them by the deadlines.
  • Ask your professors to write an outline on the board for each class or seminar, if that would be helpful to you.
  • Ask your professors how flexible they can be with deadlines. If you need additional time to complete tasks because of your disability or the accommodations you need, discuss this with your professors.
  • Alert your professors to the additional steps or time you might need to deal with sudden changes in syllabi or assignments.

Resources

  • Disability Resources for Students (DRS) establishes a student’s eligibility for disability accommodations and works collaboratively with faculty and staff to coordinate and implement these accommodations. DRS is a resource for students, faculty, and staff regarding the provision of equal access for students with disabilities in all aspects of campus life. DRS provides knowledgeable guidance and consultation and is a resource for publications on disability-related subject matter.
  • DO-IT Program (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internet-working and Technology) provides resources for disabled students in engineering and the sciences to help increase independence, productivity, and participation in education and employment. Though directed primarily to undergraduates, graduate students may find helpful information too, or they can volunteer to mentor younger students.